North Carolina Bicycle Headlight and Tail Light Law

In 2016, North Carolina passed a new law that requires specific lighting for bicycles operating at night.  This law went into effect on December 1, 2016 and is in the books as N.C.G.S. 20-129(e).

The law reads:

Lamps on Bicycles. – Every bicycle shall be equipped with a reflex mirror on the rear and both of the following when operated at night on any public street, public vehicular area, or public greenway:

(1)        A lighted lamp on the front thereof, visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of at least 300 feet in front of such bicycle.

(2)        A lamp on the rear, exhibiting a red light visible under like conditions from a distance of at least 300 feet to the rear of such bicycle, or the operator must wear clothing or a vest that is bright and visible from a distance of at least 300 feet to the rear of the bicycle.

Many attorneys who have discussed this law have expressed an opinion that this law will help bicyclists.  We disagree.  We certainly agree that this law will likely make bicyclists more visible to on-coming vehicles and that should lead to fewer accidents at night.  However, many bicyclists may not be aware of this change in the law.  In order to comply with this law, a bicyclist will need to purchase new lighting for the bicycle or purchase specific clothing that has the required reflective visibility.  These items are not cheap and may not be available to all bicyclists.

The previous law for North Carolina bicyclists did require a front headlight similar to the new law.  However, the previous law only required a reflector on the rear (but gave the option of also having a rear taillight).  We have worked with many expert accident engineers in nighttime rear-collision bicycle cases.  In these cases, we have found that a rear-facing reflector provides adequate notice of the bicycle to an on-coming driver.  The requirement of a rear facing light is not necessary and has created an unreasonable requirement for bicyclists.

As lawyers who have represented dozens of bicycle accident victims, we are aware that insurance companies will do everything possible to blame the bicyclist for an nighttime accident.  If someone is operating a bicycle at night and gets hit from the rear, we are certain that the first issue the insurance company will raise is whether there was a rear-facing taillight.  If there was no rear-facing taillight, we can also be certain that the insurance company will deny the claim regardless of whether the bicycle was otherwise visible.  This law gives the insurance company one more reason to blame the bicyclist for a nighttime accident.

We believe this law should not form the basis of a denial of a claim for a nighttime bicycle accident if the bicycle was otherwise visible to the on-coming driver.  How this law is applied in court has yet to be determined.

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